Among the myriad of other excuses that are constantly trotted out to explain the English national sides capitulation at another tournament, the one about the Premier League, or more specifically the one about the number of non-English players who ply their trade in it, is probably the most common one. Since the Premier League started in 1992-93, it has gone from being populated by predominantly English players, with a smattering of foreign stars brought in to add some spice and Mediterranean/South American/etc. flair, to one that is very often played with barely an Englishman on the pitch. The average number of minutes played by a homegrown player for each game fell below 20 minutes several years ago, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. There are arguments on both sides of the fence for what impact it has had on the English national side, but what about on this side of the Irish Sea?
Common sense would maybe dictate that it can only have a detrimental effect on our national team. The fact that as more and more players come from the rest of Europe, Africa, Asia, and North and South America, there will be fewer players from the Republic who would get game time. This means they would be squeezed into the lower reaches of the footballing pyramid and that is not a good thing. Surely, if we want to qualify for the World Cup and make an impression when we get there, then we need to have players playing regularly for the best teams in the world?
It is not as simple as that, though. First of all, let us have a look at the facts. Thirteen of the squad for Italy 1990 played in the first division (as the top league was known as back then). Two others were at Celtic and John Aldridge playing for Real Sociedad. For the 1994 squad, the percentage of those playing in the highest league in England was higher. Of course, however, there are other factors involved in why that is, but we won’t go into that here or now. Fast forward to 2002, and all but three were playing in the English top flight.
Bringing it up to date, of the 48 players who have played or have been called up over the last year, 16 played in the Premiership. Of those that were playing in the EPL, few were starting, and even fewer were doing it at the right end of the table. The majority were playing for Championship teams, which brings us to the crux of this article. The First Division/Premier League/EPL, whatever you want to call it, may have changed over those years, but so has the Championship. It is one of the hardest and most competitive leagues in world football and is not short on quality. If we aren’t producing (or recruiting) players good enough to play for clubs chasing glory in the EPL, the Championship is not a poor alternative. In addition to that, 15 of those 48 were playing on a team that got promoted or were in the mix for promotion. They are used to playing on a winning side, at a high level.
So, is the EPL good or bad for Irish football? I would say it has almost become irrelevant. The more pertinent question would be is the Championship good for Irish football, and the answer to that is a resounding YES.